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BPU Orders Utilities to Do Better Job Keeping Lights on During Big Storms

Agency directives include better sharing of crews outside franchise areas and improved communication with customers about restoration efforts

pse&G snow
Credit: PSE&G

The Murphy administration is ordering the state’s electric utilities to step up efforts to avert widespread power outages in the wake of a trio of nor’easters that left more than a million customers without service last March.

The directives, outlined in a 70-page report by the Board of Public Utilities staff, stem from the agency’s conclusion improvements are needed in utilities’ pre-storm planning and preparation, as well as post-storm restoration.

The recommendations range from better sharing of crews among the state’s four electric utilities to respond to outages outside their own franchise territory, improved weather forecasting, better communication about restoration efforts to customers, and requesting an assessment of the cost-effectiveness of using new technology to speed restoration efforts.

“New Jersey had one of the worst winters on record, but my administration has taken the stance that prolonged service interruptions were, in many cases, preventable,’’ said Gov. Phil Murphy, who ordered the board investigation after the storms.

Three storms in three weeks

The three storms, occurring within a span of three weeks, impacted 1.2 million customers, leaving some without power for 11 days. Two of the utilities, Jersey Central Power & Light and Rockland Electric, had not restored power to all customers when the second storm struck on March 7, making it more complicated to restore service.

JCP&L
Customer outages were way higher than JCP&L had predicted.

A significant problem found by the BPU staff is that the utilities underestimated the severity of the initial storm, dubbed Riley, classifying it initially as a low-impact event. That led utilities to lowball the resources they would need to respond to outages, especially JCP&L. Customer outages were 10 times higher than the state’s second-largest utility predicted, according to the report.

No help from out of state

The widespread nature of the storms also led utilities in other states to hold back sending their crews to New Jersey under so-called mutual assistance pacts, again affecting restoration efforts. As a result, the staff recommended setting up a new alliance between in-state utilities to better share and coordinate responses to outages.

“I don’t care where the parent company is headquartered,’’ said BPU president Joseph Fiordaliso. “If the utility is located in New Jersey, the first priority has to be New Jersey. When you ask for help from a state utility, I expect that help to be delivered.’’

The staff also recommended taking a more expansive look at stepping up vegetation management, trimming trees and branches that fall and knock down power lines, the major cause of outages. They suggested lawmakers consider allowing utilities to cut back trees outside of their right-of-way, a particular contentious issue.

“Vegetation management, obviously, has been a major issue in all the years I’ve been on the board,’’ said Fiordaliso, who joined the agency 13 years ago, “and we’re still talking about it. The EDCs (electric distribution companies) have to be more proactive.’’

In a departure from past policy, the staff also recommended that utilities conduct feasibility studies for implementing AMI, or advanced metering infrastructure, a two-way communications system between customer and utility. In the past, the BPU has not pushed AMI, although it has approved a pilot project for Rockland Electric.

“Because efficiency is instrumental to effective storm restorations, staff believes a closer review of this technology is warranted at this time,’’ the report indicated. The technology also has been championed by clean-energy advocates, who view AMI as helping to pave the way for a greater reliance on renewable energy and increased energy efficiency.

The board did not penalize any of the utilities, although Commissioner Bob Gordon questioned whether the agency ought to ask legislators to increase fines for failing to restore service quickly. “Until shareholders are affected, we’ll see something like this again,’’ he said.

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